The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Still Separate and Unequal

America's poorest students need extra educational resources just to keep pace with their more privileged peers. Instead, they get less—and teachers, principals and unions get blamed for the outcome.

Published on August 10, 2012

Elementary School. Early Education. Childhood Learning. When you read these words, what comes to mind? Do you think of your own experiences and fondly remember a favorite teacher or class trip? A bright, airy classroom? The smiling faces of childhood friends? Most Americans do recall positive learning experiences from childhood, and these experiences still influence our view of the U.S. educational system today. Those of us with children currently or recently in elementary or secondary school are even more inclined to think we know whether the system as a whole, or any particular part of it, is broken, and how to fix it. In our consumer society, many of us are “consumers” of education. At least that’s the mindset we often bring to the subject. We put our tax money in, and we expect to get our money’s worth out.

As an educator who has taught in public schools for nine years, I can tell you something that only other teachers and professional educators really understand: You’re mistaken. An educational system doesn’t work like a vending machine, or like any machine or business delivering a product for consumption. Money matters, to be sure, but the labor and material resources money buys are only necessary but far from sufficient components for educating our children properly. Our educational system is far more complex than even very attentive outsiders can grasp, and it is, moreover, not an independent actor by any means. What goes on in the homes of students and in the wider society matters enormously to educational outcomes. Few ardent supporters of public education really understand what it takes to provide high-quality learning opportunities for children in a public school classroom, and for that reason few are aware of the vast chasm between public school systems that are well provisioned to do so and those that aren’t.

Let’s be frank about the nature of that chasm: Legal segregation is no more in the United States, but the de facto segregation of far too many American schools and whole school districts continues to this day. And yes, educational outcomes depend on more than what happens in schools, but nonetheless, the struggle for equity and fairness in public education is the preeminent civil rights issue of our time. 

We face a basic question of justice and equity when it comes to the first building blocks of the educational process. The most vulnerable members of our society, children in our neediest areas, face a gross injustice when they go to school each day. The Campaign for Educational Equity, which is now studying New York City public schools, has identified several gaps in “availability of basic educational resources”  in its report, “Reviewing Resources: An Assessment of the Availability of Basic Educational Resources in High-Needs New York City Schools.” (These resources are those listed by Justice Leland DeGrasse in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York court case as necessary in order to “provide all students the opportunity for a sound basic education under the New York State Constitution.”) The Campaign’s research confirms what I have seen firsthand. The schools serving our poor urban populations face a chronic and pervasive lack of resources to support teacher development, to provide a safe learning environment for children, to support curriculum development and to provide basic technology. These problems are not isolated, but systemic.

Given all the variables at work in education, it is a real challenge to guarantee equal educational outcomes, and yet we must insist on a level playing field for all our children regardless of the circumstances of their birth. The fact is that many of our urban students require more support to have a fair opportunity to excel academically, and it is their basic civil right to expect that level of investment from society. 

It is disappointing and surprising that so many people seem blind to the current state of affairs in public education. Many deny that the inequalities that exist between the children of middle and upper-middle class parents and their poorer counterparts is an issue of justice. Some claim that the issue is “cultural”, a capacious word used in this case to mean “futile.” Whatever the silent assumptions lurking in the background, the fact is that few not already engaged in addressing the problem feel much motivation to do anything about it. There is certainly no sense of urgency among the general public, or in our political class as a whole, about addressing the current state of public education in our cities.  

It is instructive to compare this widespread apathy with the dramatic activism that in past decades overcame other societal injustices. We have seen, for example, remarkable shifts in public opinion, and in the application of our concepts of justice and equity, with respect to the handicapped. Our society and government have also reacted vigorously to the perils of second-hand smoke. We have come a long way in a short time, and spent billions and passed many laws, when it came to creating and enforcing new behavioral norms to protect the environment. The sense of the public welfare has been so strong in these areas that the public will has developed to pursue initiatives that benefit society notwithstanding the fact that the benefits may not correlate with the population making the bulk of the sacrifice. What has applied in those cases applies as much as, if not more, to the task of providing a more equitable educational experience for poor urban and rural children: Everyone would gain. This is not charity but self-interested social investment. How do we explain the lack of public ardor for fixing our educational inequalities?

Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine a society in which every child has exactly the same chance of being placed in any of our public schools, regardless of income level or zip code. Children would no longer simply be sent to their local school; instead, all children’s names in a particular geographical area would be collected in a hat and picked at random for assignment to a given school. In this imaginary world, a child born into a family living in a middle or upper-middle class area could be sent to a school in a poor urban or rural environment. Similarly, a child born into a family living in poverty could be bound for one of the best schools in the nation. Everyone’s odds would be equal.

If there were such a “veil of ignorance”, to borrow John Rawls’s coinage in A Theory of Justice, around which school one’s child would attend, how would we design our school system? How would we fund and otherwise support them? What would we do for the communities around the schools? Wouldn’t middle and upper-middle class parents take a keener interest in creating high quality, safe, nurturing schools in all communities? Wouldn’t they more readily find it to be in their interest for all children to have the opportunity to attend a school that would prepare them to compete in the global economy? Wouldn’t it be easier to build a consensus around the proposition that having access to the basic requirements for a high-quality education is a right, not a privilege?

In theory, we could turn this thought experiment into public policy. That, after all, is to some extent what busing was meant to achieve so many decades ago. In practice, we need a more lasting and effective way to bridge our way from the hypothetical to the real. I see that bridge as consisting of two parts. The first part is educational: We must destroy the apathy that hides the realities of gross inequality in our public schools. The Secretary of Education should make it one of his primary goals to highlight inequalities by visiting the poorest schools and pointing out the need for more support in order to improve facilities and quality of instruction. 

The second part is to develop more effective strategies for the classroom and the broader context of education. There are some specific approaches individual teachers in the classroom can employ regardless of resource deficiencies, but there are also specific capital and human resources needed at the school, community, district, state and federal levels, regardless of what teachers are doing in the classroom. 

Opening Our Eyes

Just because students sit in front of teachers in a classroom does not mean they are ready and available for learning. The reality of the daily lives of many families living in high-poverty areas can be quite different from that of typical middle- and upper middle-class life. Many children come from single-parent homes, and many others come from homes where both parents together are not earning a living wage. That often means that one or both parents are working long and irregular hours, sometimes at several part-time jobs, in a way that makes adequate supervision and the establishment of basic routines difficult—especially when extended family are not nearby to offer support. Many young students in these environments confront violence and gang activity and worry about their personal safety. Some may be exposed to drug use and influenced by corrosive media (explicit songs, lurid movies and video games). Many lack constructive role models. There are few job opportunities for adults, which leads to insufficient economic resources to support everyday needs. Others still confront language barriers and are beset by poor nutrition and healthcare. 

Moreover, these challenges often exist in compounding combinations, so that it is not always clear which conditions to alleviate first. Children caught in such circumstances can adapt (and children are extraordinarily adaptive), but the circumstances they are adapting to are such that they end up mobilized for self-protection, and not necessarily for learning. To really learn, a young person has to have a secure and trusting relationship with his or her teachers. 

Before a teacher can present lessons to such students, she or he must establish a trusting relationship with them, which requires understanding the whole child. To understand, we must listen, must give children a voice to use beyond their often small spaces of security and comfort. Part of that requires teachers to recognize that many of our students have experienced significant pain, upheaval, stress and loneliness in their lives. That is why much of what many successful urban educators do isn’t even considered “teaching” by observers outside of the profession. It falls more into the realm of counseling and therapy, administered much of the time by teachers who have, and typically receive, little or no formal training in such fields. 

I know this first hand. In my first year of teaching, fresh out of Teacher’s College’s Masters Program in Elementary Education Preservice, I was teaching in a school that served the poorest socio-economic population of a diverse New Jersey school district. The school had talented teachers who were focused on educating the whole child using a “multiple intelligences” approach. I was placed in a third-grade classroom of 24 students that included a child who had been found living in a car with her deaf-mute parents; several kids with ADHD and a few with truly severe learning disabilities; a child who made guns out of anything he could find and pretended to shoot people; a child who would only do work if it related to cars; a child whose parents were going through an emotional divorce; a few “middle class” children whose parents ignored them; and a little girl named Marie. 

Marie was an immigrant child who came to New Jersey with her mother and her older and younger brothers. Marie was a “difficult” child—smart but prone to acting out in various ways. When she entered my classroom at the beginning of third grade, her mother was so depressed she did not get out of bed. Marie was her older brother’s responsibility, and he was only a high school student. She often came to school with her hair undone and her clothing disheveled. 

At some point each school-day morning, usually between spelling and social studies, Marie would throw herself to the floor, crawl underneath her desk and cry. This would usually last up to an hour, and she refused to talk to anyone but me. So I would spend some time every morning sitting with her on the floor until she trusted that I was not going to give up on her or simply send her out of the room for someone else to deal with. She was emotionally so raw, and too young to put her feelings into words, that crying was actually what she needed. 

However, after she had cried her hour for the day, she was delightful, engaged and pleasant. As she developed friends, she cried less and less frequently. It turned out she had an incredible singing voice, and she earned a starring role in our class play that year. She also showed herself to be a talented writer and earned an award through the local newspaper for her poetry. Her success cannot be attributed solely to my instruction. I merely recognized that she had a range of needs, about which I consulted with our school social worker. I also drew upon my background in psychology and the training I received at Teacher’s College. This helped me understand how to encourage her to manage her own emotions, which in turn allowed her to achieve academic success.

 This is a typical skillset for teachers today. They must be psychologists, therapists (sometimes even to their students’ parents), social workers, ersatz parents, nurses and nutritionists. Many poor children come to school with serious emotional, social, academic and behavioral needs. We must be prepared to address all of these needs if we want such children to succeed academically. Teachers can’t bring back outsourced or automated jobs to the inner city. Teachers can’t fight drugs, crime and violence. But teachers can do a lot under the right circumstances to successfully reach all poor children, one child at a time. Quality instruction is only part of the solution. Teachers must also build a caring and respectful relationship with students in order for them to be open to instruction in the first place.

Research has confirmed the importance of relationships to student achievement. Most recently, the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and led by several academic institutions, identified seven characteristics of successful teachers as indicated by students. These characteristics are: care, control, clarify, challenge, captivate, confer and consolidate. If teachers can be trained to develop and express these characteristics, relationships and student achievement in their classrooms should improve. 

Every teacher wants to be successful and wants her students to excel academically. Based on my observations of teachers who’ve been successful, I believe there are five steps teachers can take to raise the level of academic achievement in poor urban classrooms. 

1. Acknowledge our own biases and stereotypes. Everyone has biases. We may not be aware of them, but they are there, and we must push past them. 

2. Build real relationships with each student. Get to know them. Share yourself with your students (which doesn’t mean becoming their peer or pal). Find each child’s strength and celebrate it to help them build self-confidence. And use a Multiple Intelligences perspective when considering and communicating not who is smart, but how each child is smart.

3. Show the children you really care about and respect them. 

4. Believe that every child can learn and improve. If teachers truly believe that children can learn, they will find ways to reach them. 

5. Celebrate their success and provide specific positive feedback.

While these are steps that all teachers can follow, a multitiered approach is a necessity if we are serious about real reform. Teachers, schools, districts and policymakers cannot ignore our students’ realities outside of the classroom. We must address their social, emotional, behavioral and psychological needs, needs that are all connected within a child. When she was lying on the floor crying, it did not matter to Marie if I was presenting the most incredible lesson in the history of third-grade education; she was not going to learn it.

Beyond these steps, specific to teachers, there are several other things we must do at all levels of the system: schools, districts, state and Federal. My own experiences suggest the following areas of concentration.

School and District Changes

We should require one social worker for every 150 students in all schools receiving Title 1 funding. While many teachers have had some training, our most troubled children and their families deserve access to trained professionals. This will free teachers to focus more on instruction rather than managing crises on a daily basis—crises like Marie. The Campaign for Educational Equity has identified this as a key need in New York City schools.

We should cap class size at twenty students from grades K–5 and at 24 from grades 6–8. Middle school students need more support and attention just at the time we take it away from them by giving them several different teachers, larger classes and less time with each teacher. We make it harder for them to develop relationships with positive adults (teachers) just when they need those relationships most. Accordingly, we need to allocate more funds to reduce class size in Title 1 middle schools. Some research suggests class size doesn’t matter or that teacher quality matters more. Studies suggest that a good teacher with a larger class is more effective than an ineffective teacher with a small class, but a good teacher with a small class can be exceptional. With the challenge we are facing today, where so many students are two or more grade levels behind, we clearly need exceptional results to make up ground. More time with each child, especially when teaching them how to read and write, is key. 

High-quality preschool can help level the playing field between children of poor families and their wealthier counterparts. Middle- and upper middle-class children enter kindergarten with more advanced literacy and math skills than children who have not had access to print-rich homes or school-like environments. Research by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley on relative vocabulary poverty among different social classes is particularly striking. Quality pre-K programs can go a long way to address these inequalities.

Extend the school day and school year. Specifically, I would reduce the ten-week summer vacation to two three-week periods. This would provide ample time for recreation and relaxation even as it would increase time for teaching and reduce the erosion in retention that occurs over the long summer vacation. Studies have shown this loss is greater for poor kids than for middle- and upper middle-class kids. Additional class time should be filled with enriching learning experiences such as field trips, dramatic performances, hands-on science experiments and other engaging activities that help build schema and background knowledge, rather than simply forcing children to sit through additional hours of test-prep.

State and Federal Changes

Recruit more talent into teaching. Over the next decade, 1.8 million teachers will be eligible for retirement (according to the Teacher Salary Project). We have an historic opportunity to bring talented individuals into teaching. We can use some of what has been learned at The Equity Project (TEP) Charter School to bring talented teachers to some of the poorest urban areas. TEP offers a salary of $125,000 a year in an effort to attract highly effective teachers to work at the Washington Heights public charter school. We can also use merit pay to reward teachers who take on the most challenged populations. Across-the-board higher salaries may attract more talented individuals, more career-oriented teachers, more men and more minorities to the teaching profession. Competitive salaries would make teaching a more viable option for recent college graduates (with high student loans) who seek and require more lucrative employment. We also should take full advantage of the U.S. Department of Education’s programs to place teachers in high-needs districts. 

Some say we can no longer afford these costs in tough economic times. This way of thinking is beyond foolish. It will cost American society vastly more in the future not to make these critical investments in education. 

Our universities have an important role to play in spearheading better teacher and principal preparation. They should follow the professional schools’ use of case studies, and should put more emphasis on training supervisors in management and the skills needed to assess, mentor and coach new teachers. We should build on models like New Leaders for New Schools to develop principals and supervisors capable of meeting the challenges of urban public schools. 

Existing teacher training programs serving urban school districts should also add cultural competency to their frameworks. Teachers should be trained in the seven characteristics of effective teachers as identified by the MET project, and in the five steps listed above regarding how to raise academic achievement in poor urban classrooms. 

In addition, a basic level of awareness about acts of microviolence in the classroom is necessary. Most teachers in urban areas are middle-class white women who may not grasp, for example, that the young African-American girl in the class who refuses to remove her scarf is not being disrespectful, but is rather trying to manage an otherwise paralyzing “bad hair day.” I learned early on to keep scarfs, ribbons and hair clips in my classroom because I understand that a child can be so preoccupied by her appearance that she cannot learn. Small adjustments in our thinking and handling of potentially precarious situations can go a long way in improving the educational experience for our children of color.

We also need to create better standardized tests. While standardized tests can be useful, this is the exception rather than the rule. Given the flawed nature of many of these standardized tests, “teaching to the tests” has lowered the standard of education many students are receiving in cities such as New York. 

In addition, most states now only assess Math and English Language Arts, which means schools serving low-performing populations are pressured to reduce instructional time in other areas (including art, music and physical education as well as science, social studies, and character education). We are over-testing and under-educating our neediest kids. I have graded the New York State Exams and quality of writing is basically ignored. The multiple choice questions have many flaws, some of which have been brought to the attention of the general public by savvy eighth graders.1 We need to question whether the million-dollar contracts to create high-stakes standardized tests have been sufficiently evaluated and conform to a high standard of excellence.

We also need policymakers who are willing to learn about the actual challenges that face our schools. They need to work with teachers, administrators, parents and school boards to learn what is working and what is not. Policymakers should listen to educators and provide support for reform efforts designed by the educators to fill the gaps present in their schools. For example, New Jersey policymakers introduced legislation to support the Progressive Science Initiative-Progressive Math Initiative pioneered by the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (NJCTL) to reduce teacher shortages in math and science across the state. As a result, in the past three years NJCTL has tripled the number of teachers certified per year to teach physics and chemistry.

We spend too much energy searching for magic bullets in education policy (vouchers, school choice, tenure reform, merit pay, testing and charter schools), and so lose focus on the basic but broad effort needed to improve the performance of urban public schools. To take charter schools as an example, the original intent was for charters to serve as laboratories for innovative educational approaches, the expectation being that the innovations there would lead to improvements in the broader public school system. The intention was not to create a parallel system of public charter schools of widely varying quality that would function as an alternative to the traditional public schools and leave many of those schools with reduced human and financial resources. But that’s what seems to be occurring. We haven’t committed the resources to sufficiently learn from the charter school movement. The broader public school system hasn’t benefited from this growing effort.

As Americans we have the power to shift our priorities and bend the flow of our resources to improve the educational experiences of all our children. We must act urgently to educate the general public and capture their conscience. Movies such as American Teacher and Mitchell 20 can play a role in increasing public understanding and invigorating our will to do better. 

Perhaps we can learn something from other societies, too. As a nation, Finland decided to significantly improve its public school system, and made it happen. The government recruits top college graduates to the teaching profession. It pays for teacher training. It pays competitive salaries. Teachers are treated with respect and trust. Schools receive support, not punishment, when they don’t get desired results.2 It can be done. We simply need to decide to make it happen here.

And it’s not just our poorest schools that need a boost, by the way; even our better and some of our supposed best schools are not nearly as effective as we think they are in comparison to what many other countries achieve. We’re not such picky consumers after all, it turns out. In the meantime, countless teachers will be fighting sometimes desperate holding actions to limit the damage we are doing to our country each day by tolerating unequally resourced and inadequately effective schools. These teachers could really use some help. 

1See “When Pineapple Races Hare, Students Lose, Critics of Standardized Tests Say”, New York Times, April 20, 2012.

2Described in “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries”, New York Times, April 30, 2011.

Rhena Catherine Jasey currently teaches at The Equity Project Charter School, holds a B.A. from Harvard, an M.A. and M.Ed. from Columbia, was featured in a New York Times article, starred in The American Teacher movie and has appeared on numerous panels around the country discussing education issues.